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Dr. Thomas Goes to the West


A few months after the Paineville discussion, Dr. Thomas was brought to entertain the idea of removing to another part of the country. The backward state of affairs in Virginia—religious, social, and commercial—depressed his mind. He had concluded in the first instance that it was not possible to disentangle himself from the position, and resolved to make the best of what could not be helped. But a relative in Illinois, in what was at that time known as the “far west,” wrote to a member of the Doctor’s household, setting forth the advantages to be derived from a removal to the rising district. The Doctor was so impressed with the idea that his situation was next to inextricable, that over a week passed before he read the letter, supposing that it might make him restless. After much persuasion, however, he read the letter. The result was that he began to converse about Illinois, and what he heard caused him to decide to go and see for himself. He thought the account might be overdrawn, from a desire of the writer to get friends out there. Going to spy the land was no light matter. The distance to be covered was 900 miles; there were no railways, and the journey had to be performed on horseback, over mountains and moors, and through forests and swamps.


            Having put his affairs in order, he set out on the third of April, 1839. The way was toilsome, but the prospect stimulated him to endurance. His friend’s word by post had not been a “dead letter” in its effects upon his mind, in reference to which, he made these characteristic remarks in the Advocate, vol. 5, p. 425: “In travelling, from day to day, I often thought how absurd and impious was the dogma of antichrist, that the word of God is a dead letter. Here, thought I, when picking my way among the mud holes of the black swamp in Ohio, and into which my horse would plunge breast deep, here am I, a living illustration of its mendacity. Why am I toiling, day after day, over mountains, through swamps, and the newly-opened wilderness, existing upon everlasting eggs and bacon, half-baked dough, and home-made coffee? What power has moved me to exchange for these labours and hoosier dainties, the ease, tranquillity, and comfort of home? What, but the word of man? Can his word, then, excite to these things, for a few brief enjoyments, and cannot the Word of God excite His creatures to encounter the difficulties of the way of righteousness, that they may attain to glory, honour, incorruptibility, and eternal life; a prize incalculably more estimable than the possession of all Illinois, or the celestial universe for a temporal estate? I concluded that such traditionists were either cracked, bewitched, or both.”


            His route lay by Liberty, the Sweet Springs, the White Sulphur Springs, Lewisburg, Charleston, to the Ohio river, by Point Pleasant. From Gallipolis in Ohio, he travelled to Chillicothe, and thence to Springfield, Michigan City, and Chicago, which, at that time, contained but 6,000 inhabitants. South by west of Chicago, he crossed a prairie of nine miles, and travelled westward through the region watered by the Du Page and Fox rivers, where he spent three weeks inspecting the country. The Doctor was unprovided with arms or other means of self-defence, but got through his long and solitary journey unmolested.


            He occupied twenty-three days in the journey. His object in performing it on horseback was that he might see the country through which he passed; for Dr. Thomas was a great observer, and possessed an extraordinary appreciation of the sublime in nature. To gratify this taste, he visited the Hawk’s Nest, an immense gorge, fifty-four miles from Lewisburg. The spectator stands on the verge of a precipice, above the bed of a river, which runs 700 feet below. On the other side of the river is a mountain whose base it washes, and on either bank are spurs of the Gauley mountain. On viewing this magnificent specimen of the Creator’s handiwork, the Doctor’s eyes filled with tears, which trickled down his cheeks, while, with profound veneration, he exclaimed, —

“Great and wonderful are thy works, O Lord God Almighty; righteous and true are thy ways, Thou king of saints. Who would not fear Thee, O Lord, and glorify thy name, for Thou only art perfect?”


            The result of his visit to the north-west was to convince him of the advantage of removing thither from Virginia. His mind on the subject he thus expresses: “Were my advice asked by friends in the south, I would say, dispose of your property to the best advantage for all concerned, and clear out to Illinois; and did the Christianity I profess allow me to desire the misfortune and the distress of my enemies, I would say, By all means, stay where you are, for compared with that country, poverty, famine, and jeopardy stare you in the face.”


            On his return he proceeded to wind up his affairs, a task that occupied some months, and it was not until the first of December that he and his party set out on their way to make a new home. The party consisted of the Doctor, his wife and small daughter, together with his brother, who appears in the story for the first and almost the only time, a man servant (half Indian, half Negro) and a boy. Their transport consisted of a four-horse wagon and a one-horse cariole, on a journey that occupied two months. During all this time, they camped in the woods at night, with the exception of a few days in Ohio, where they halted to refresh themselves and their horses, and to visit friends in Cincinnati.


            Shortly after they started from Cincinnati, the Doctor had a narrow escape of being killed. He had with him a smooth bore rifle which he used for the purpose of shooting game, to replenish the larder of the party. On this occasion, his brother, in loading the rifle, overcharged it, and when the Doctor raised it to his shoulder to fire at some pigeons on a neighbouring tree, the gun burst, and a fragment of the shattered stock struck him on the face, which the next moment was black with powder and streaming with blood. His cap was on fire, his thumb injured, and it was discovered that a piece of something had passed through his cap three inches above his forehead. The barrel of the gun was thrown over his head, and alighted on the ground six feet behind him. For ten days the Doctor suffered severely. Sparks of light danced before his eyes, and his hearing was entirely suspended.


            The party arrived at their destination, Longrove, thirty-three miles from Chicago, in the midst of a storm of sleet and wind. It was a dull beginning to the new enterprise. The land which the Doctor had purchased consisted of 288 acres, and he had to enter it in order to obtain a title. There was nothing in the shape of a house, but three or four empty oat stacks, one of which was built over and enclosed with fence rails, forming a sort of shed-shelter from the weather. It was decided to store the goods in this contrivance, and yielding to the pressure of necessity, it was resolved that some of the party should spend the night, rough as it was, under the same fragile roof. Quarters were thus provided for the Doctor’s brother, the man servant and the boy; while the Doctor and his wife and daughter found temporary accommodation in the house of his brother-in-law.


            In a letter Dr. Thomas wrote to a brother in England in January, 1840, giving reasons for his removal, he said, “You have, I suppose, been informed of my change of residence from the slave-holding, tobacco-growing, and soil-impoverished Virginia, to the free, fertile, and prairie Illinois. You may, perhaps, be surprised at the change, and be gratified to know the cause. It is manifold, but may be considered as physical, intellectual, and moral. These may be found in the soil, the people, and myself. I had a farm there, the fields of which had been so impoverished by constant cropping, close grazing, and non-manuring, that I could not raise enough to support my family.”


            Having referred to financial matters, he said, “The ancient gospel and worship, the eternal life, the revelation of Messiah, the resurrection from the dead, the glories of the age to come, were too much subordinated to trading, pleasure-taking, politics, and so forth, for my taste. Slavery has a blighting effect upon modern professors of Christianity in the slave holding countries.”


            He finished the letter with the following paragraph, “May that peace which the world can neither give nor take away, be with you for ever; and though we may never meet in the flesh which sees corruption, may we embrace each other in the flesh which is incorruptible, honourable, and glorious, in the presence of Him before whose face the heavens and the earth shall flee away.”


            With as little delay as possible, Dr. Thomas proceeded with the building of a house for the accommodation of himself and family. Meanwhile he lived at Naperville, a short distance away. On the completion of the house, farming became the Doctor’s occupation. The publication of the Apostolic Advocate was suspended, and no other publication took its place. Dr. Thomas had brought with him the printing press and office material used in the production of the Advocate, but he did not find immediate use for them. Afterwards, they came to be of considerable service and supplied a link in his future career. Meanwhile, he devoted himself to his farm. He hired a man to do the laborious part of the work, leaving himself at liberty to attend to any medical practice that might come in his way. Things went well till a fall in wheat, from a dollar and a half to fifty cents per bushel, upset his calculations. This made farming by hired labour, at sixteen dollars a month and board, an unprofitable arrangement, and he decided, after a little cogitation, to farm the land on shares, he providing the land, farming implements, and seed, to one who should furnish the labour and allow him half the proceeds. The partner in the concern was to have his board on condition of doing “the chores,” that is, cutting wood, drawing water, and attending to the stock. The man engaged was exceedingly disagreeable, and the Doctor was beginning to regret the new arrangement, when he was relieved of the man’s presence, by his requesting to be released from his engagement, as he had an offer from some one else, which he considered a better one. Acceding to his wish, the Doctor made up his mind to do all the work on the farm himself. Having built a barn, into which the produce of the year had been stowed, he thought, everything being now under cover, he should be able to get along by himself. He accordingly turned to and devoted himself to wood cutting, water drawing, stock tending, ploughing, harrowing, sowing, mowing, and the general offices of farm life.


            These were laborious and exhausting for a man of the Doctor’s slender organization, but, for a while, he persevered. He adopted various labour-saving expedients, some of which were amusing. One of them particularly excited the merriment of passers-by. He found it very fatiguing to walk after the harrow, over ploughed land, and resolved to make some arrangement by which he could ride and drag the harrow after him. He removed the upper frame of one of the wagons, and attached to the centre of the hind axle a long pole, to which he harnessed the horses; he then passed the chain round the axle to the corner of the harrow, and having placed a cushion to the top of the axle, took his seat, and raising his feet against the forepart of the contrivance he drove along, and completed his work. The contrivance, though rather clumsy and awkward-looking, relieved him of a great deal of walking, and lightened his toil.


            The Doctor also found mowing a great demand upon his strength, and only managed to get through it by resting at the end of every seventh row, lying under the shadow of a haycock until sufficiently rested to renew his labour. By this slow process, he was able to cut fourteen tons of hay, which he housed in the barn. In addition to these labours, he had to take care of a bull, five horses, two colts, and half a dozen hogs, and milk two cows night and morning. He had never milked cows before, and he found the process exceedingly disagreeable. One of the cows was a kicking animal, a propensity which, he thought, was probably aggravated by his awkward mode of performing the dairy-maid’s office. He found it necessary to tie the hind legs of this animal before beginning operations, so as to escape being knocked down if the cow should attempt any pranks.


            Six months of this kind of work brought the Doctor to the conclusion that, though gentleman-farming might be very fine, farming for a livelihood was an abomination. With such onerous duties, and in the absence of help (his wife being unable, from sickness, to give him any assistance, and his daughter being too young), the doctor had little time for literary pursuits. By way of recreation, on Sundays, he used to visit the neighbourhood, four or five miles round, and speak on the subject of what he considered Christianity; but these labours were attended with little result.


            When the severe winter of the north-west arrived in all its rigour, the Doctor resolved to leave the farm, and engage some one to live on the land, allowing him the reaping of the crops and the use of the house and ground, for his trouble in looking after things in the absence of the Doctor, till he should succeed in selling the whole concern. This being known at St. Charles, a town about twenty-five miles away, where it was desired to establish a weekly paper to advocate the town and neighbourhood as an eligible location for emigrants, and to supply a medium for advertisements and general news, Dr. Thomas was invited to settle there, and to set up his press and open a printing-office.


            Having accepted the invitation, he set out for St. Charles on Christmas Day, 1841, the country being under snow. He started with his wife and daughter, in a sledge drawn by a pair of horses. When they had got about a mile from home, the vehicle broke down in the midst of the prairie, and they would have been in an uncomfortable plight but for the neighbourly offices of a settler, who brought them under sledge, and conveyed them to his house, where they remained till their own sledge was repaired. In a day or two, they arrived at St. Charles, and made preparations for their new operations. Before the first number of the projected paper was issued, however, the building in which he had opened his office, and in which his books, medicines, and printing materials were stored caught fire and was burnt to the ground. Intelligence of the conflagration was brought to him at three o’clock in the morning. The messenger told him the place was destroyed, with all its contents, and wished him to come to the spot at once. The Doctor told him that, if everything was destroyed, he could do no good by coming out at that hour of the morning, and went to bed again. When it was light, he got up and went to the place, and found it a heap of ashes.


            The Presbyterians of the district rejoiced at the calamity, for they had been greatly disturbed by his anti-sectarian notions. They said it was a judgment from heaven upon him for his infidel sentiments. The difficulty, however, was soon got over by the principal proprietor of the town offering him a loan, which he accepted to the amount of 340 dollars, with which a new office was purchased, at the town of Henepin, on the Illinois river. Here the Doctor commenced the publication of the weekly newspaper.


            About this time a Dr. Richards, residing in the town, invited the Doctor to become President and Lecturer on Chemistry in an institution called the Franklin Medical College, which was chartered by the State of Illinois. This appointment he accepted. Dr. Richards was Lecturer on anatomy and surgery, and provided bodies for dissection through the enterprise of his pupils. On one occasion, a body was missed from a neighbouring cemetery, and suspicion was fixed upon his college students. The incident created a sensation. The Doctor in his capacity of purveyor of news, reported the circumstances in his paper, and strove to allay the excitement by remarking upon the necessity of dissection to the qualifications of surgeons, and the groundlessness of the alarm which prevailed. This was construed as identifying the paper and its Editor with the sacrilege (as it was called) which had been committed, and the Doctor became exceedingly unpopular. The excitement, however, died away, and the matter was forgotten.


            Circumstances were combining to force the Doctor into the career that was to result in the realisation of the Truth, free from the doctrine and associations of Campbellism.



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